Let’s talk about (postpartum) sex

It is, after all, how you got into this mess in the first place.

An evening walk, a talk until sunrise, a glass of wine, and that song on the jukebox. Infatuation, love, commitment, sex. This is how it happens.

Romance, relationship, and the physical expression of both is what—essentially—brings about parenthood and yet, those very things often seem alien and unattainable after a baby’s birth.

On one hand, couples often enjoy a new level of closeness after the birth of a child. Finally, you are a family. You share a common set of worries, a mission, and a previously unimaginable capacity for love and compassion.

Running alongside this new current of camaraderie, like a twisted barbed wire fence, is the feeling that while in many ways your and your partner are closer than ever, you are also quite changed—instantly—and therefore somewhat foreign and fumbling.

Before baby, you were Hot Lips. After? Mama—an actual new identity to add to a new body, new hormones, and a taxing new nighttime routine. This is what doulas refer to when they describe “the new normal,” however, to the postpartum parent, the slew of new feels anything but.

Body image

Katrina, a St. Paul adoptive mother of two and first time birth mother was surprised by the emotional side effects brought on by the physical changes of pregnancy. “I didn’t expect to feel so physically vulnerable,” she says, admitting that although she didn’t actually fear her husband, she felt frightened when he ran his hands over her C-section scars and residual sagging stomach. Their first intimate experience actually went quite well, with both achieving orgasm, however Katrina felt as if she were “having sex while in someone else’s body.”

The body image issue is almost universally problematic for new parents.

Most mothers focus on the extra baby weight, but express other concerns as well: stretch marks, incision scars, sagging breasts, varicose veins, swollen feet, a traumatized perineum, and leaking nipples. Yep.

You could write a book on society’s influence and just what women are up against when—while nursing their newborn—they are faced with a Victoria’s Secret commercial. They are reminded—constantly—of what is supposedly considered desirable. The message that the general hum of pop culture sends is so deafening that a new mother can’t even hear when her partner tells her that she is beautiful.

Says Lisa Erbes, Minneapolis based lactation counselor, childbirth educator, and doula, “Mom needs to talk about her body changes with her partner and be willing to hear and believe that her partner still finds her sexy and beautiful. Partners are often quite turned on by the changes and curves that come with pregnancy and motherhood and women don't even consider that! When a partner says they find Mom sexy…it’s true!”

Partners, friends, practitioners, and neighbors could and should drown out the media shove of unrealistic and unhealthy physical standards by complimenting new mothers on the very things that make them unique. We may be a long way from praising stretch marks; however, we can view them as proof of a strong woman and we can compliment that woman on how lovely she looks with a baby in her arms. We can choose to glorify the right kind of beauty. 

Reconciling change

Occasionally, a partner will be put off by the transition to motherhood, but rarely for the reasons a woman might suspect. Sometimes witnessing traumatic birth might make the other parent feel hesitant around the woman’s body, having seen it go through so much. Of course, sometimes it simply takes a while to reconcile the pure and noble idea of a “mother” with the irresistible “lover.”

The postpartum mother herself often has a hard time blending her new physicality with her sexual self. Says L, a San Francisco executive assistant; “I remember being in a lovely post-coital snuggle and then hearing my son on the baby monitor, demanding to be fed. It was so strange and confusing to shift from sexuality to breastfeeding.”

The bottom line with physical changes and body issues is that all fears and feelings are valid, should be communicated respectfully, and met with an effort to understand where the other parent is coming from. New parents should never forget that they are in this together and that any unaddressed concerns will only fester and grow. It must be OK to feel shy about a post-birth body. It must be OK for a partner to feel conflicted about their mate’s shift to motherhood, at least temporarily. You talk about it, you practice great patience, and appreciate that these lean and mean “baby days” are fleeting—wonderful, miserable, hard, and fleeting.

In the bedroom       

OK. Say you’ve talked about the wild changes and misgivings, have perhaps even addressed some minor jealousy over the bond between your partner and your child; everyone involved has accepted the idea that moms—whoa—can be sexy, and yet, those once radiant embers still remain cold and grey.

Exhaustion, anyone?

No matter what evidence-based sleep training program you diligently adhere to, no matter if the two parents develop an elaborate schedule of naps and shifts, and even when you receive overnight assistance from a family member, a nanny, or a doula, the new parent will always—without fail—suffer from sleep deprivation.

Nothing, save an innuendo-dropping great-grandmother, kills the libido faster than exhaustion. Both parents are tired and to make matters worse, they fight about it! Who gets more sleep? Who has the harder life? Who cares? Go to bed!

Yes, bed. That once familiar place that now sits near a bassinet, a baby monitor, and a diaper Genie. What used to be “where the magic happens” is now where the breast milk flows.

For new parents, the use of the bedroom for anything other than sleep can seem daunting. In theory, you want to have sex, but you don’t have the energy. Again, patience is a must.

Try baby steps toward intimacy. Too tired and touched out from baby-care to even think about making love? Try a gentle back rub or a simple cuddle instead. Carve out time for a date or even a less-ambitious walk around the block. Establish early on that foreplay need not play out by the end of the night. It might take days to embrace the spark started by a tender good night kiss.

This takes time, and in the beginning, time is scarce.

Most couples wait at least two months postpartum to have intercourse and for many it takes quite a bit longer.

The first sexual experience as new parents is often quite like the first time ever. Love, attraction, and excitement mixed with anxiety, awkwardness, and shyness. Furthermore, contrary to vulgar myth, the woman is not usually “loosened” by childbirth—it’s quite the opposite. Stitching and healing combined with a low-estrogen induced lack of lubrication conspire to make a woman feel virginal. Often, the first time hurts.

But it gets better.

Candid conversation, a focus on the positive, and prioritizing the clichéd but crucial “date night” help smooth this bumpy, lumpy, tired transition into a new life as parents. Yes, parents who—believe it or not—have sex.

Jen Wittes is a St. Paul based mother of two and freelance writer. She also works as a postpartum doula with Welcome Baby Care in Edina.